By Ms. Wajiha Akram, Honorable Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Federal Education and Professional Training, Pakistan
My first reaction to the figures released in the latest GEM Report released last month was sadly not surprise or shock, but disappointment. The COVID-19 pandemic shook the entire world and made traditional methods of teaching and learning obsolete overnight!
A developing nation like Pakistan had to face, counter and solve many challenges, very, very quickly and I can honestly say that we tried our best. The report states: ‘In Pakistan, a survey of 16 districts found similar learning losses in foundational skills in grades 1 and 3 but not in grade 5’. We understood that early-years education was likely to suffer more as younger children took longer to get used to e-learning and teleschool initiatives. Our feedback and analysis also showed that parents of younger children were also a bit more relaxed when it came to their studies and focused more on older siblings in more advanced classes.
It was indeed a trying and testing time. We were also trying to coordinate efforts for our new Single National curriculum initiative, within which we want to eradicate the discrepancies of the current 3 modes of education in Pakistan (private, public and madrassah) and bring them all on one page so that no child gets left behind in the current and any subsequent lockdowns.
However, Pakistan’s response to the COVID pandemic and our handling of it has been lauded internationally. I feel that, in part, that was because of our immediate handling of the situation, where we did not waste time in taking the necessary steps and making the needed changes. We worked on switching schools to online platforms or closing them. We did what was best for the lives of Pakistani citizens and I think we did well considering all extenuating circumstances.
To mitigate the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are still now involved in a number of activities. For example, we are making sure that dropouts do not materialize. We are organizing enrolment drives and leveraging vaccine drives to encourage enrolment or re-enrolment of children to provide them a safe environment, now that they are back.
We are using student assessments to gauge the true size of the problem. This is why this year we did not cancel exams, as we did last year. We cut down on the syllabus but encouraged examinations all over the country, to truly understand how much learning loss has been suffered and how to reverse it as quickly as possible. We are also helping teachers by providing them with support and training to understand how to get back on track.
Additionally, we are working on improving access to remote learning by expanding connectivity, device ownership and by ensuring families know when programming is available. We understand that internet usage and access to digital communication devices like laptops is low so we are trying to increase access to those. Similarly, we will try to improve the quality of remote learning by further developing the content, its sequencing, and by making the content more interactive because that was some feedback we received on our teleschool initiative.
Overall, we aim to strengthen curricula and support teachers to facilitate rapid catch-up with learning losses. I believe now is the time to build back better. While there have been some improvements in both access and learning levels in recent years, the pandemic is a substantial setback against hard-won gains. Collectively, we need to step up our support to the school system, protect education as an essential service, and preserve the budget for education. COVID-19 affected everyone, but we cannot let the youngest and most vulnerable members of society suffer from a crisis that threatens their present and their future.